Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Statue of Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley, the British-born American explorer and journalist is famous for rescuing the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, and his part in the European colonisation of Africa. However, despite his considerable achievements as an explorer, Stanley's reputation has been severely tarnished by his association with the creation of the Congo Free State. This was a private colony set up by King Leopold II of Belgium in the Congo basin in the 1880s. For nearly 25 years the country was looted for its natural resources and became notorious for the way the locals were killed or mutilated in a brutal system of slave labour. Meanwhile, Leopold amassed a huge personal fortune.

For years a statue of Stanley looked out over Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, until it was pulled down in 1971. Now, according to the Independent, the British have launched a tender to restore the memorial. Tim Jeal, author of Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer, has responded to the article in which he claims the explorer is "portrayed as a monster."

In his book, Jeal attempted to rehabilitate Stanley's reputation. This he did, in part, using previously undisclosed archival material. For example, he writes that as a journalist, Stanley often exaggerated his fights with Africans to make his copy more exciting. In a note from July 1877 he claimed to have "fought 32 battles" and "destroyed 28 large towns" on the Congo, something that has often been used to prove his brutality. Jeal though, found nothing in the man's original diary to support this.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Mountain rescue on Great End

While walking in the Lake District on Sunday I came across a serious accident on Great End. Basic details can be read here. It was hard to get phone reception but a number of people eventually managed to contact the emergency services. Within an hour (and probably less), the first members of the Keswick Mountain Rescue team were on their way and soon a steady stream of rescuers carrying equipment and stretchers were powering up the hill.

This is an amazing service, all the more so as the
Lake District Mountain Rescue Association is a charity almost totally funded by voluntary contributions.
The unpaid volunteers are available at all times of the day and night, 365 days per year.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Telemark heroes

In one of the most daring raids of the Second World War, Jens-Anton Poulsson, who died last month aged 91, led a team that sabotaged Hitler's heavy-water plant in the Norwegian Telemark region.

The Germans were believed to be developing heavy water (water with a raised concentration of deuterium, essential for the manufacture of plutonium) for an atomic bomb at the Vermork site, 50 miles west of Oslo. In October 1942 Poulsson, along with three others, were dropped by parachute onto the Hardanger Vidda plateau to prepare the operational base for an attack on the plant. However, the expedition nearly ended in disaster when three weeks later two gliders, each carrying nine engineer commandos, both crashed. One team was wiped out, while the second nine survived, only to be captured and shot by the Germans.

Poulsson and his men, including Knut Haughland who died in December 2009, were left on the mountain. They ended up spending three months in a trappers hut, food ran low, and only through great ingenuity did they manage to survive. Eventually a new team led by Joachim R√łnneberg met up with the original saboteurs and working together, they carried out the destruction of the heavy water plant with ruthless efficiency.

The raid has inspired a number of films including the (not entirely accurate) The Heroes of Telemark (1965), starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris, as well a number of books. The latest to be published is Mission Telemark by Amanda Mitchison, a children's novel based around the real events. In the story, four teenagers, trained by the British Army Special Operations Executive (SOE), are sent into Norway to sabotage the heavy-water plant. It's a gripping, well-paced adventure that keeps to the spirit of the actual Telemark operation. The book also includes lots of useful survival tips such as how to skin a rabbit, or avoid frostbite, and is even a touch gruesome in parts.

So how did I come to be reading a children's story instead of something like Poulsson's Tungtvanns Sabotasjen? Well, my 10-year-old daughter has just read, and re-read, the book and as it was lying around the house I just couldn't resist it picking it up.

Back to more factual accounts of the wartime raid, and it's worth listening to this BBC Radio 4 documentary or watching Ray Mears's The Real Heroes of Telemark.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Prester John

Prester John was a legendary Christian priest and king who is supposed to have lived in the 1100s. Many travellers and explorers of the Middle Ages, including Marco Polo, claimed that he ruled a vast kingdom in central Asia. The legend arose during the period of the Crusades (late 11th to the 13th century), but historians have long placed Prester John within the category of myth.

However, in an interesting
post on Time to Eat the Dogs, Michael Robinson writes: "The point here is not to say that Prester John was real, but to say that in characterizing him as a mythic figure, historians have tended to discount his serious influence on European exploration and discovery. This is a central argument of historian Michael Brooks in his excellent thesis, Prester John: A Reexamination and Compendium of the Mythical Figure Who Helped Spark European Expansion".

Friday, 12 March 2010

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird was one of the most intrepid and adventurous travellers of the Victorian era. Between 1854 and 1900, she travelled the globe, overcoming poor health and spending "far too many nights in flea-ridden inns". In a century when women were supposed to keep to the sidelines, she went off to dangerous places and wrote a series of successful books about her adventures.

In her early twenties she travelled alone through the United States, then spent the following decades exploring Persia, Japan, Tibet, Morocco, and in her sixties one last great adventure to the Yangtze Valley and the mountain regions of northwest China. She covered a wide field: geography, flora, fauna, trade and the habits and customs of dress of people, including their superstitions and beliefs. Her accounts of China ranged from the etiquette of getting in and out of a sedan, to the 'mannerless, brutal, coarse, insolent, conceited, cowardly roughs of Chinese towns' who lived 'in a state of filth, among odours which no existing word can describe'.

An exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society brings together some of Bird's photographs and drawings with the work of Kiyonori Kanasaka, a geographer and photographer based in Kyoto, Japan, who re-traced her journeys over five continents. OK, it ends on March 12 but hopefully part of the collection will remain on the RGS site.

In November 1892 Bird became the first female Fellow of the RGS, one of 22 women to be elected as Fellows in the following months. However, this innovation in the society's 62-year history provoked an extended salvo of protest from a small but determined group of men, many of them Admirals. One feared the venerable institution would be reduced to the level of "the tea-party and garden-party institutions". On July 3 1893, the resolution that "Ladies are eligible as ordinary Fellows" was put before a Special General Meeting and defeated. The women already admitted were to remain as such but no more were to be elected. The following leader appeared in the Guardian on July 4 1893:

(click to enlarge)

Women were finally admitted almost 20 years later in November 1913. There's a short film about Bird on the National Library of Scotland site.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Spyclists and climbers

The revelation that cycling tours by Hitler Youth groups and Nazi attempts to establish close links with the Boy Scout movement caused a security panic in prewar Britain was widely reported yesterday. Files released by MI5 revealed that police officers were alerted to monitor German students on bicycle holidays in the late 1930s as they stopped at schools, Rotary clubs, factories and church services. Even a meeting between Lord Baden-Powell, head of the Scout movement, and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German ambassador, caused alarm.

But it wasn't just German cyclists - or 'spyclists' as they were dubbed by the Daily Herald - visiting the UK during the 1930s. In July 1936, members of the German Alpine Club arrived as guests of the Workers' Travel Association mountaineering group. The party spent five days in North Wales and six in the Lake District, accompanied by leading British rock-climbers of the day. The visitors impressed their hosts by climbing many of the Welsh test-pieces in wet conditions. However, relations soured over the Germans' habit of hammering pitons, or metal pegs, into the rock for protection. This continental practice was totally at odds with the British ethos of not damaging the rock, as explained in this Guardian report from July 26 1936:


As Colin Wells wrote in A Brief History of British Mountaineering: "Things came to a head when the Germans put up a new, hard route on the historic climbing ground of the Welsh mountain Tryfan (917m). They placed three pitons in the course of the climb, outraging the establishment and provoking the talented British climber John Menlove Edwards to repeat the route without the pegs - which were removed shortly afterwards."

This though was nothing compared with the disgust many British climbers felt towards German attempts to climb the north face of the Eiger. The route was one of the last great challenges in Alpine mountaineering and the Reich was to sponsor several teams during the 1930s. Raked by avalanches and loose rocks, many climbers had lost their lives on this notorious Mordwand ('murder wall').

After the deaths of four climbers in 1936, a Guardian leading article (July 24 1936), was highly critical of the attempt. This was both for what was seen as the distasteful continental practice of using pitons, but also that the climbers were driven on by an 'inflamed nationalism that regards mountaineering as a field for the moral aggrandisement of one's own country'. No doubt this line was influenced by recent events (Germany had just concluded a gentleman's agreement with Austria and had recently sent troops to the Rhineland).There's more about this in The Guardian Book of Mountains.

To return to the subject of the Hitler Youth and sport, a short piece from the paper's The Footpath Way column illustrates the attitude of a minority of Germans towards the British, during the 1930s.

(August 24 1936)

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Explorers who died at work

Of the many newspapers and magazines given out for free on London's Underground, ShortList is one of the better ones. It usually contains something vaguely interesting, such as the list of Ten explorers who died at work that appears in this week's issue. Of course in this context 'work' usually means being chased by someone in some inhospitable place.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Phillip Law

The Australian press has been reporting the death of renowned Antarctic explorer Phillip Law, at the age of 97. Often known as Mr Antarctica, in a four-decade career he helped map more than 5,000 km of the continent's coastline as well as setting up three Australian bases during his 28 trips to the region.

The Mawson station, the first of these, was establihed in 1954 and the following piece by Law appeared in the Guardian appeared on February 4 of that year.


See the Australian Antarctic Division for a history of the country's exploration of the white continent.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Global warming and the Arctic

'Global warming is crap' - so said UK Independence Party Leader Lord Pearson of Rannoch in a press release, last week. Each to their own and other views are available. I mention this as someone sent me the UKIP email while I was reading about explorer Pen Hadow's new expedition to the Arctic to research the acidification of the oceans caused by emissions of carbon dioxide. His team will cross more than 1,000 km of ice pans, frozen ridges and open ocean to help scientists discover how long it will be before the Arctic sea ice disappears due to climate. Video of Hadow can be seen here.

Of course the expedition may well discover that Lord Pearson is indeed correct and 'carbon really ain't pollution' but let's wait and see. Read about the team's training regime here, and more about the expedition itself on the Catlin arctic survey site. Meanwhile an Irish team is about to set off on an endurance trek to the North Pole.

While on the subject of climate change, I was recently searching the Guardian/Observer digital archive for early references and came across the following piece by the Astronomical Correspondent (May 17 1932).

(click to enlarge)